Writing music for a library music company can lead to a rewarding composing career. In this guide to production and library music, we break down what it takes to work in this exciting industry.

If you want to get into media composition, you probably want to make music for film, TV, or game soundtracks. We all yearn for the big gigs that will keep us gainfully employed for weeks or months at a time. But it’s fair to say those jobs will usually be more infrequent than we might like. Instead, most media composers might also take time out to produce music for libraries. Indeed, many are finding a career composing exclusively for libraries in this abundant arena. But before we get too far into this guide to library and production music, let’s get some definitions done!

So what is library music?

Library music is the more commonly applied name for ‘production music’ – they are one and the same. Production music libraries were just that: large rooms with row upon row of shelf-laden depositories in days gone by. You could borrow a tape or record (yes, vinyl) to get a particular style of music for a media project. If you needed a theme for your TV show, they were like a public library, with indexing systems to match. Pick a genre, like ‘spooky’ or ‘comedic’, head for the appropriate shelf, and find an abundance of tracks to choose from. 

CDs meant library music companies could send higher quality music to media companies

Fast forward to the 80s, and the advent of the compact disc saw production music companies swell. And many were sending out this convenient format directly to edit suites, production companies, and broadcasters. The library concept advanced when the internet was able to cope with the transfer of music in data form. Now we have companies, big and small, providing musical content in all shapes and genres, for all sizes of media projects, from podcasts to Hollywood features.

Time to move on

So let’s get the stuffiness of ‘the library’ out of the way immediately! Library or production music sometimes gets a bad rap, often from people that know no better. In the past, it has been frowned upon as the poor cousin to some other genres of media composition; that viewpoint could be one of the biggest mistakes of your musical career. It’s not uncommon for library composers to be paid well and very handsomely for their work in some cases. One composer we know had a track picked up by the BBC for a syndicated TV show, and found himself with an Aston Martin two years later!

Library music composition can earn you big bucks – but it’s not all about that

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – it’s not all about the dollar or pound signs. It’s also about the creative potential of library music, which can be more rewarding than working directly on media productions. The concept for a library album lies mostly at the composer’s door. As such, you have the freedom to roam wherever you might like. Granted, you will want to do some research about where to go musically, but once you’ve got a plan, you are in charge of your own musical destiny, at least within the guidance of the format! 

One other vast appeal of library content is that because you are not scoring with a particular product in mind, your work can be used repeatedly. And every time it’s used, you’ll get paid royalties.

Is that a library track?

There have been some superb examples of library music entering the public psyche, with many listeners unaware that a track might have originally been a library track. One fine example is a track called Heavy Action, written by composer Johnny Pearson for the KPM library. Interestingly, this track is as infamous in the USA as it is in the UK, but through different usage.

In America, Heavy Action is best known as the theme to Monday Night Football, whereas UK viewers know the exact same theme as Superstars, which first aired on the BBC back in the late 70s, making several reappearances since.

One criticism laid at the door of library music relates to its placement in programming. Its use within a televisual or narrative context can lead to a patchwork of tracks being employed within a show. It often falls to the TV show’s editor or producer/director to make the calls about track selection and provision. It can be a common occurrence for track selections to be very diverse, lacking a common thread.

As a library composer, keep an ear out for these sorts of shows, to establish what’s being used. Pay attention to which musical styles suit your writing style or production abilities. While it is great to try new ways of working, any tracks submitted will need to stand up to scrutiny. Library companies adopt very high standards. If we consider the example of Heavy Action again, it’s a track that has benefitted from multiple placements, with royalties following from each playing. With the prospect of multiple plays, it’s essential to maintain standards, and that starts with the composer.

Next stop? Album!

Bearing in mind that while all styles of music are viable for library contention, it’s also important to create a clear concept to work through, before you start writing. It’s certainly possible to switch tack halfway through your creative flow – in fact, that can be quite a common occurrence. But be sure to follow your own thread and thought process through to a conclusion. Before sharing it with the wider library community it’s also important to be objective and critical about your own work.

In the vast majority of cases, albums are themed toward particular styles of music. If you are working on your own brief, you can massage the concept to suit your own project, but try to keep things homogenous. Just because a certain style of track keeps popping up on your favored TV show, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a library company will share your vision. Contemplate adapting your concept, from an obvious starting point to a location slightly to one side or left-field.

Trailer music

While all genres of music provoke acceptable concepts for albums, there is one specific area of production music that is treated slightly differently. 

The category described as ‘trailer music’ is, as the name suggests, directly associated with trailers for feature films, although these tracks can obviously be repurposed for other uses. As many films work to a tight timeline, it may be that at the time of promotion, the soundtrack is not available. This is where trailer music steps into the void. They often have a big budget sound, backed by large-scale orchestration which has been recorded live. 

The time and expense in this area of library music give some idea of the royalties that might be recouped. No surprise then, that trailer cues are at the upper end of the library hierarchy.

Track lengths and cutdowns

Most library companies will request a certain number of tracks to complete an album. This might depend on whether you are writing the entire album yourself, or whether you are contributing tracks to an album project, with several other composers. Either way, the vast majority of library companies will want at least two versions of your tracks. These are best described as full-length or long versions, and a shorter more concise version. 

The longer version’s length is likely to be somewhere in the region of two to three minutes. As a composer, you, therefore, have an opportunity to compose a theme that develops, rather than simply repeats. However, there can also be as much demand for simplistic tracks that do very little, as there are for tracks that take the listener on a musical journey.

The shorter track version is normally 30 seconds in length, with some companies requesting adherence to very strict criteria. This might be 28 seconds with reverb and fade or more musical elements such as an opening that introduces the main theme immediately. There are many ways to present the 30-second mix, but normally the watch-word is ‘impact’! It’s designed to be used for themes, adverts, etc. so it needs to get to the point straight away. This is such an essential consideration that some library companies will prepare the 30-second version for the composer, being edited down from the full-length stereo master, by in-house producers or engineers.

Stems and tracks

Alternative mixes are also a very common request. More often than not, these mixes are created by soloing/muting elements, to provide a different track color. This can be as simple as muting drum or percussive elements or simply presenting elements as a different mix. 

Using stems from your DAW can be flexible but not always a great idea

A final area that is becoming more common is the preparation of stems. A throw-over from other worlds of media, the concept for stems is to provide editors with a flexible palette. By supplying individual stems (or tracks) for drums, bass, and so on, the editor gets more control over your track. Used well, this can be a highly effective tool, but has been known to be abused, with examples of different track stems being laid against each other, with the resulting cacophony being every composer’s nightmare!

Moving forward

Armed with a plan and a concept, the next step for world domination in library and production music will be to get your album placed. Before you go too far down that library line, look out for part 2 of this feature. Here we’ll spill the beans on contracts, royalty breaks, and the best routes for getting an album placed within a library.